By Alan Wechsler
At 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2020, Charlotte Brynn eased herself into the gently lapping waters of Lake George from the dock at Snug Harbor Marina in Ticonderoga. She was wearing a one-piece competitive-style bathing suit and a bathing cap, plus goggles and a glow stick tied to her suit.
There was no moon, and the water temperature was in the low 70s.
In the dark August night, accompanied by a friend in a kayak and several others on a pontoon boat, the swimmer from Stowe, Vermont, made her way to what is known as “Diane’s Rock,” a boulder a few feet from shore. Then she started swimming south.
The next stop: the public dock in Lake George Village, 32 miles and an unknown number of hours away.
Brynn, 54, a New Zealand native who has performed “marathon” swims around the country, had just launched her longest challenge yet. She would be the latest in a long line of aquatic athletes attempting to swim the entire length of Lake George.
A deep history
Brynn continues a tradition that began in 1958, when local Diane Struble completed the swim in 35.5 hours.
A lot has changed in the world of marathon swimming since that famous feat, when the 25-year-old mother of three was sponsored by Schlitz beer and Camel cigarettes, and brought so much fame to the lake that a group of 10,000 onlookers welcomed her at the finish.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the difficulty—the dark nights, the cold water, the moody lake with its risks of changing winds and sudden thunderstorms. Only 12 people had completed this bold endeavor at the time of Brynn’s attempt.
There are rules. Swimmers must not wear wetsuits and must be accompanied by support boats. From departure until they complete the trip, they must be in the water. They can’t touch bottom, a flotation device, or a boat (including during feedings).
The rules stem from the 21-mile English Channel, where marathon swimming got its start. In 1875, Matthew Webb swam the channel in less than 22 hours, a feat completed more than 2,300 times since. The channel is almost 10 miles shorter than Lake George, and the salt water adds buoyancy. On the other hand, its water is much colder and rougher, and there are strong currents and a considerable amount of ocean traffic.
The first distance swim on Lake George occurred in 1927, when 150 swimmers left Hague for Lake George Village, vying for a $10,000 prize. Only one finished, according to Robert Singer, 71, a college professor and retired environmental consultant who has assisted in a number of lake swims.
It wasn’t until 1958 that Diane Struble completed the lake’s most celebrated swim.
Swimming into fame
“She became a heroine. Her life changed,” recalled her daughter, Gwenne Rippon of Schuylerville. Her book, “Called by the Water,” tells that story.
“Why was it such a big deal?” Rippon asked. “I think it’s the timing. Lake George was starting to be a very popular destination already, and it was about to blossom.”
In promoting her successful swim, Struble was assisted by—and later married—the Lake George Chamber of Commerce president, Paul Lukaris, who asked her to wait a year before the attempt so he could drum up sponsorships and publicize it. In that, he was hugely successful.
Right before the swim, Struble prepared by downing a steak, and during the swim she fueled her way with beef broth and Hershey bars. At times, there were so many power boats around her that the engine fumes began to affect her performance. At other moments, waves were so high that the spotters briefly lost sight of her. As Struble got closer to the finish line, a local radio reporter in a boat interviewed her, using a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and a microphone on the end of a pole. The tapes were rushed to the station, the interview broadcast while she was still swimming.
So many people were waiting for her at the finish line that traffic—pre-Northway—was backed up all the way to Saratoga County.
Swimmer conquers Lake George twice in back-to-back slogs
Since then, swimming the Queen of American Lakes has become a sought-after feat by those with the stamina and aquatic prowess to consider it. Some do it in teams, with members swimming a few miles and then handing off the figurative baton. In the early 1980s, a group of Queensbury High School students swam the lake in such fashion. In 1997, local optometrist Roy Kline swam it, in relays, with two of his children: Travis, 16; and Elissa, 14.
“We are water people,” recalled Kline, who was 45 at the time. “I had read about some of the other swimmers and I brought it up to the kids, and they just jumped right at it.”
Singer, the college professor and swim organizer, once tried to organize a multiple-person swim across the lake, involving 14 relay teams and 12 solo swimmers, departing in half-hour intervals. In all, 84 swimmers were supported by 230 volunteers in 32 powerboats and 26 kayaks.
But things didn’t go well.
“It was an utter and complete failure,” Singer recalled. “We had to cancel about five hours into it because of weather. But nobody was hurt.”
Last year also saw the first completion of a two-way Lake George swim. On Sept. 16 to 18, Caroline Block, 36, swam from south to north, and back down south again in one 64-mile push. It took 52 hours.
What does it take to complete acts of such difficulty? Singer says it’s a combination of physical endurance, swimming skill, and mental fortitude.
“Swimming at that scale is largely mental,” he said. “They have to keep focus for many, many hours.”
Raised in cold water
Brynn is no stranger to long swims or cold water. As a “wee nipper” on New Zealand’s South Island, she loved diving into glacial-fed lakes and the frigid Pacific Ocean. “My parents couldn’t keep me out of the water,” she said. “After school, I would run down to the beach and swim for mussels off the rocks.”
She later married a Vermonter and moved to Stowe, where she manages The Swimming Hole, a community pool and fitness center. She discovered distance swimming about 12 years ago, and since then has swum around Manhattan, a two-way swim across Lake Champlain, the Catalina Channel in California, and a traverse of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont and Quebec.
Then she heard about Lake George, and she wanted in. Brynn spent six months training. By early August, she was swimming 35 miles a week.
The original plan was to swim south to north. But the wind switched at the last minute, so they changed tactics. Winds create waves, and the going is much easier when the waves are with you. As it would turn out, this strategy was only partially successful—Lake George weather is unpredictable.
Diane’s Rock, named for Struble, is the official start of a Lake George north-to-south swim. After Brynn touched the rock and headed out into the lake, she immediately searched for her groove.
“I thought, ‘It’s going to be one stroke at a time,’” she recalled. “And a long night.”
As she swam, she was followed by her team, including Dave Snyder piloting a 25-foot pontoon boat, and Janine Serell, Lyn Goldsmith, and Eri Utsunomiya keeping time, taking turns helping to keep her fed from the boat, and paddling with her in a kayak. Singer provided additional logistical support from the shore.
“You want people crewing you who understand marathon swimming and know what it’s like,” said Serell, an experienced marathon swimmer and crew member. It was her job to count strokes (if a swimmer starts to slow down, that could be a sign she is in distress), keep track of distance, and make sure the swimmer follows the rules.
“You have to know the difference between someone whining and someone who’s in trouble,” she said. “Although, she never whined. She was one of the happiest swimmers I’ve ever crewed for.”
(Almost) alone in the dark
Brynn might have had a reason to be unhappy soon after the race began. Only a short time into the swim, the wind switched directions. She would swim into a headwind for the next 12 hours.
“You know you’ve got a bit of a headwind when the boat stops and you see it being blown backwards,” she recalled. “It certainly made me work harder. Of course, it could be a lot worse. It was under 10 miles per hour.”
For her first hour, Brynn swam without a break. Then, and every half hour after, the crew signaled her to stop. She would swim over to the pontoon, where she would tread water and eat or drink from a flip-top cup on a line that the support crew threw to her. It contained, at various times, warm chicken noodle soup, mashed potatoes, electrolyte drinks, raisins or chips. In all, she would have 34 food stops.
Occasionally, she looked up and noted the stars, and the black silhouettes of the nearby peaks. She kept her discomfort at bay.
“When you’re swimming as hard as you can, things hurt,” she said. “You get fatigued and tired, and you can get stomach upset and nauseous. When I felt uncomfortable, I’d take my focus back to the stars or the lights on the shore, and take it away from what doesn’t feel good.
“I probably spent about six hours dreaming of the sunrise,” she added.
All this time, she swam at a steady pace of about 1.8 mph, using the front crawl, what she describes as the fastest swim stroke. She powered on through the night.
“She is an incredibly efficient swimmer,” Singer said. “She is thin and she’s long and she just keeps a really tight, hydrodynamically efficient line through the water. There is no extra motion for her. Some of us splash and thrash and wiggle. She is like a torpedo.”
Sun and storm
Dawn found her about 15 miles in, near the Harbor Islands.
“It’s an amazing thing to watch the sky lighten up, minute by minute,” she said. “You start to see a horizon on the hills, and then you make out houses and islands. The sunrise came and it was just stunning. I knew things would get warmer.”
By 9 a.m., she was in the Narrows, the island-choked central portion of the lake, adjacent to Tongue Mountain and the Lake George Wild Forest. Now boat traffic was starting to thicken, and her spotters had to take extra care to make sure no craft got too close. On the plus side, some boaters knew who she was, and cheered her on. “That was really fun,” she said.
At 11:45 a.m., disaster almost struck. By now the water had calmed, and she was passing Diamond Point, deep into the southern part of the lake and only a couple of hours from the finish. But suddenly the skies darkened and there was a crack of thunder. Boats headed to shore. And the team was worried—if there was lightning on the lake, it would be too dangerous to continue.
“We were terrified,” said Lyn Goldsmith, a member of her kayak team. “We had the marine radio on, and we were looking at the radar. The wind comes up and we hear thunder. But it was way off.”
It did start to pour, and the wind got worse. But the thunder never returned, and the breeze was from behind, offering a welcome tailwind that helped push her forward.
When the weather cleared, the team had some more good news.
“They said, ‘If you can swim the next 6 miles in four hours, you can break the record,’” Brynn recalled. “So I decided I’d swim as strong as I could, but in control. And that’s what I did.”
Observers say her pace never slackened; that her form was as strong at the finish as it was throughout the trip. At 2:42 p.m., she reached the Lake George Village sea wall, the designated finish. She touched the wall, and it was over. The time was 17 hours, 58 minutes. It was a record for man or woman, beating the previous top speed by nearly an hour.
Singer was standing on land with an iPad. On the screen, live, was Brynn’s 20-year-old daughter, Heidi, to share in the excitement. Brynn raised her arms over her head, relieved that she could still lift them.
She was helped into the boat, and wrapped into a down jacket. Later, she took a shower and a nap, and ate some boiled eggs and toast.
By the next morning, she felt well enough to go out and celebrate.
Don’t miss a thing
This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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